“Son, you didn’t tell us you were so close to the future Empress,” the man to her right remarked with a chuckle.
“Easterners.” Erion clearly didn’t know how to handle her unexpected affection.
“You’re all right.” Vhalla looked up at Erion’s face. He had dark circles under his eyes, and there were gray strands of hair that Vhalla hadn’t seen before. But he was alive. “I was given no indication, I thought, Daniel said—”
“Daniel?” Erion’s face became serious. “You spoke to Daniel?”
“We found him on the way to the East,” Vhalla tried to explain hastily. “He was feeling, he said that Craig had—”
“My lady,” Aldrik interrupted her sharply.
Vhalla turned back toward the Emperor, who still held his place on the raised section of the room. Vhalla knew she had completely botched the test she had earned from him in this respect. She straightened, taking a deep breath. If she had already broken all decorum, she may as well do whatever she wanted at this point.
“My Emperor, I did not realize that I would have an old friend among our company. As I have already disturbed this audience, I seek your permission to escort my friend through the galleries.”
Aldrik was visibly conflicted. It wasn’t an elegant situation no matter what they did. The worst thing he could do would be to refuse her now and make the interaction awkward.
“Very well.” Aldrik forced a horribly fake smile. “If the Lord and Lady Le’Dan give their permission as well for you to not be in attendance for their audience.”
“Of course, my lord,” Richard Le’Dan said hastily. “We would never wish to go against your lady’s desires.”
Vhalla heard Aldrik begin speaking a somewhat different script than usual as the doors closed behind her and Erion. It took a lot to throw Aldrik off balance, and Vhalla wasn’t sure if she should be proud or concerned at the fact that she had accomplished it without even trying.
“My lady.” Erion offered her his elbow.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Vhalla asked as she hastily took his arm. She tried to subtly offer him support on his wobbling legs, remembering what Daniel had said about Victor’s abuse.
“Not even in the slightest.” He shook his head. “You said you had news of Daniel?”
Vhalla’s chest tightened. She recounted the story of how she had found Daniel, glossing over some of the darker aspects of his mental state. The distance in Erion’s eyes told her that he already had a reason to suspect how bad it had actually been. It was out of respect for the horrors that the man had so clearly known that Vhalla left out the fact that Daniel’s hometown, the place that she had left him, had fallen to Victor’s troops.
“You inherit an Empire full of broken and half-people, Vhalla.” Erion motioned to his now lame legs with his cane.
His trousers hid what she suspected to be scarred and ravaged flesh. In truth, she was surprised he was walking at all after Daniel’s testament regarding the injury. The young lord watched her face tensely.
“I will kill him.” She didn’t apologize. Apologies wouldn’t return Erion the life he had earned as a warrior, that he had fashioned for himself since he was a boy. They were men and women of action. She’d offer him solutions. “I can find you work here, in the palace.”
“I decline your offer.” Erion’s cane clicked along softly. “But I will thank you for it.”
“Are you certain? I know you cannot fight, but you have a wealth of experience with tactics and—”
“And most of my brainpower has been spent healing and relearning how to walk. Most of my willpower goes to getting out of bed.” The words were heavy. “My days for battle are over, and I am sick of its taste. I may never expunge the blood from my dreams, but I am done washing it off my hands for this lifetime. I’ve decided to manage my family’s shop here in Norin, and learn the trade of my forefathers.” They began walking again. “When you win the war, the Empire will need to be rebuilt. That will take gold, and gold comes from commerce. I hope to serve our Empire in that way. I’m commissioning some ships to be made for longer trips to the Crescent Continent, even.”
“Have you ever been?” Vhalla remembered what the Emperor had said about the magic of the Crescent Continent.
“The journey across the barrier islands is perilous and one not many dare make.” Erion shook his head. “I am merely orchestrating the voyages.”
“Right,” Vhalla mused, mostly to herself. Perhaps the difficulty was a good thing.
“Have you been to the harbor in Norin yet?” Erion asked.
“I haven’t even left the castle since we arrived,” Vhalla confessed.
“I imagine a soon-to-be Empress would be busy. But if you find the time, it’s a wonderful place and unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. I’d offer to escort you there myself but—” he looked down at his legs. “I think you would prefer a guard who could actually protect you should something go awry.”
“Oh, I’m sure if I left the castle that Aldrik or—” Vhalla stopped herself for a second, quickly collecting her thoughts. “Have you seen Jax yet?”
“No, I was going to head to him after our audience. I was quite elated to see him well and riding at your side.”